Pirenne and his Detractors
by John J. O’Neill
Henri Pirenne’s posthumously-published Mohammed et Charlemagne (1938) presented to the academic world the results of a lifetime of research and study. His conclusions were stunning. The accepted narrative of western civilization, he maintained, was erroneous in a fundamental way. Classical civilization, the literate and urban culture of Greece and Rome, did not die as a result of the “Barbarian” Invasions of the fifth century. On the contrary, the great cities of the west, of Gaul, of Italy, of Spain and of North Africa, continued to flourish as before, this time under Germanic kings. These monarchs enthusiastically adopted the Latin language as well as Christianity, and regarded themselves as functionaries of the Roman Emperor — who by now however sat in Constantinople. Literature, as well as the arts and sciences, Pirenne found, continued to flourish in the western provinces until the middle of the seventh century. At that point, however, everything fell apart. Now, quite suddenly, a darkness — complete and total — descends. Gold coinage disappears and the great cities go into terminal decline. Within a generation, Europe is in the middle of a Dark Age. The light of classical civilization is utterly and completely extinguished.
What, Pirenne mused, could have caused such a total and dramatic disintegration? The conclusion he reached was almost as dramatic as the civilizational collapse he described. It was, to use Pirenne’s own phrase, explainable in one word: Mohammed. It can have been no coincidence, argued Pirenne, that all the luxury items of Near Eastern origin, which were commonplace in western Europe until the early seventh century, suddenly disappear in the middle of that same century — just at the moment Islam spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic war and piracy must have closed the Mediterranean to all trade and strangled the economy of western Europe. Since the great cities of the west were dependant for their existence upon the luxury items imported from the east, these soon began to die. With the cities went the wealth of the kings, whose tax revenues disappeared: Local strongmen, or barons, seized power in the provinces. The Middle Ages had begun.
It was thus Islam, and not the German barbarians, who had caused the Dark Age of Europe.
It might be imagined that the appearance of such a radical hypothesis would have prompted widespread debate. At the very least, we might imagine it would have been the subject of a genre of critical work. Yet the astonishing thing is that, in the English-speaking world at least, the thesis of Mohammed and Charlemagne has been largely ignored. It is true that a few historians, who tended to be somewhat maverick themselves, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, did give Pirenne due acknowledgement; but in general his ideas were ignored. On the contrary, new books continued to be published which failed even to mention Pirenne, and which presented a view of the past identical to that which pertained before the publication of Mohammed and Charlemagne. As an example of this genre, we might mention David Levering Lewis’s recently-published God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008), a book that scarcely mentions Pirenne, and which basically ignores everything he said.
Yet Pirenne’s work has not been entirely overlooked by English-speaking academics. Of recent decades several volumes have appeared which purport to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the Belgian historian. The most important of these is Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe, by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse (Cornell, 1983). This latter seeks to show that new archaeological evidence, not available to Pirenne, thoroughly disproves his thesis. Another work, by Thomas F. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, (Brill Publishers, 2005), which shall be the subject of the present paper, reiterates some of Hodges and Whitehouse’s arguments, and claims that Pirenne was not only wrong, but that his thesis was diametrically the opposite of the truth. In other words, what historians have been saying more or less unanimously since the latter nineteenth century is the truth: Islam did not destroy civilization in Europe, it saved it!
Glick begins by offering a broad view of Pirenne’s argument:
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“In Pirenne’s view, the conquest of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, of Spain, and of strategic islands had shut off the mainsprings of the movement of world trade which had flourished during the late Roman times, with the result that western Europe felt an intensification of ruralization and was impelled to return to a closed, moneyless, ‘natural’ economic system. The conquests, then, set in motion a chain of events that was, centuries later, to result in the shifting of the balance of power in Europe from the Mediterranean region northward.” (p. 19)
That is a fair summary of Pirenne’s ideas; and Glick has little time for them: “In fact, the Islamic conquest had more nearly the opposite effect than that posited by Pirenne: it opened the Mediterranean, previously a Roman lake, and, by connecting it with the Indian Ocean, converted it into a route of world trade.” (p. 19) So, in Glick’s view, not only did Islam not cause an economic blockade, it actually opened Europe to influences from the Far East, which had previously been debarred. “Initially,” he says, “there was no dislocation of the international economic system and, in the 690’s when ‘Abd al-Malik tried an economic blockade against the Byzantine Empire, only a limited and partial closure was achieved: only the eastern Mediterranean was affected, and although the flow of certain items, such as papyrus, was interdicted, other products, such as spices, traveled as before.”
Glick here makes several astonishing claims, for which he provides no supporting evidence. To begin with, he asserts that, at the start, there was “no dislocation of the international economic system,” and that even after the 690s, when a deliberate attempt was made to blockade the Byzantine Empire, “only a limited and partial closure was achieved.”
I leave aside here the voluminous evidence presented by Pirenne to demonstrate the complete disappearance of all eastern products from western Europe by the middle of the seventh century (ignored by Glick), and move onto the question of the Byzantine Empire, which Glick asserts suffered little or no economic dislocation. Before commenting on the seventh century, we should note that the sixth century, just before the rise of Islam, was an epoch of unparalleled splendour for Byzantium: Justinian reasserted Imperial control over Italy and North Africa, and both he and his successors presided over a prosperous and opulent civilization. Great monuments, both civil and ecclesiastical were raised, and science and the arts flourished. This was the situation that pertained as far as the reign of Heraclius, in whose time Byzantium first came into conflict with Islam. Cyril Mango is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Byzantine history, a topic which he has covered in several volumes and numerous articles. Here’s what he says about the Empire in the seventh century, from the reign of Heraclius onwards:
“One can hardly overestimate the catastrophic break that occurred in the seventh century. Anyone who reads the narrative of events will not fail to be struck by the calamities that befell the Empire, starting with the Persian invasion at the very beginning of the century and going on to the Arab expansion some thirty years later — a series of reverses that deprived the Empire of some of its most prosperous provinces, namely, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and, later, North Africa — and so reduced it to less than half its former size both in area and in population. But a reading of the narrative sources gives only a faint idea of the profound transformation that accompanied these events. … It marked for the Byzantine lands the end of a way of life — the urban civilization of Antiquity — and the beginning of a very different and distinctly medieval world.”(Cyril Mango, Byzantium, the Empire of New Rome, p. 4) Mango remarked on the virtual abandonment of the Byzantine cities after the mid-seventh century, and the archaeology of these settlements usually reveals “a dramatic rupture in the seventh century, sometimes in the form of virtual abandonment.”(Ibid. p. 8) With the cities and with the papyrus supply from Egypt went the intellectual class, who after the seventh century were reduced to a “small clique.”(Ibid. p. 9) The evidence, as Mango sees it, is unmistakable: the “catastrophe” (as he names it) of the seventh century, “is the central event of Byzantine history.”(Ibid.)
Constantinople herself, the mighty million-strong capital of the East, was reduced, by the middle of the eighth century, to a veritable ruin. Mango quotes a document of the period which evokes a picture of “abandonment and ruination. Time and again we are told that various monuments — statues, palaces, baths — had once existed but were destroyed. What is more, the remaining monuments, many of which must have dated from the fourth and fifth centuries, were no longer understood for what they were. They had acquired a magical and generally ominous connotation.”(Ibid. p. 80)
So great was the destruction that even bronze coinage, the everyday lubricant of commercial life, disappeared. According to Mango, “In sites that have been systematically excavated, such as Athens, Corinth, Sardis and others, it has been ascertained that bronze coinage, the small change used for everyday transactions, was plentiful throughout the sixth century and (depending on local circumstances) until some time in the seventh, after which it almost disappeared, then showed a slight increase in the ninth, and did not become abundant again until the latter part of the tenth.”(Ibid. pp. 72-3). Yet even the statement that some coins appeared in the ninth century has to be treated with caution. Mango notes that at Sardis the period between 491 and 616 is represented by 1,011 bronze coins, the rest of the seventh century by about 90, “and the eighth and ninth centuries combined by no more than 9.”(Ibid. p. 73) And, “similar results have been obtained from nearly all provincial Byzantine cities.” Even such paltry samples as have survived from the eighth and ninth centuries (nine) are usually of questionable provenance, a fact noted by Mango himself, who remarked that often, upon closer inspection, these turn out to originate either from before the dark age, or after it.
When archaeology again appears, in the middle of the tenth century, the civilization it reveals has been radically altered: The old Byzantium of Late Antiquity is gone, and we find an impoverished and semi-literate rump; a Medieval Byzantium strikingly like the Medieval France, Germany and Italy with which it was contemporary. Here we find too a barter or semi-barter economy; a decline in population and literacy; and an intolerant and theocratic state. And the break-off point in Byzantium, as in the West, is the first half of the seventh century — precisely corresponding to the arrival on the scene of the Arabs and of Islam.
So much for Glick’s assertion that Byzantium was unaffected by the rise of Islam! The argument is, essentially, over; and Pirenne is the winner. If even Byzantium, the mighty capital of the Eastern Empire, were reduced to penury by the second half of the seventh century, how can we expect the rest of Christendom to have escaped unscathed? Pirenne’s vindication is absolute and complete. Yet since Glick devotes thirty pages in his book to the attack on Pirenne, it behooves us at least to pay him the compliment of examining some of the other arguments he presents. His reasoning with regard to Byzantium is not encouraging, but, it might be that he has elsewhere mustered weightier evidence.
Reading through his work, however, we find that it continues more or less in the same vein. His style of writing is opaque and convoluted, and it is usually by no means clear what he is trying to say. We hear, for example, of a “tacit alliance of the Umayyad Emirate with the Byzantine Empire in mutual opposition to the Franks,” (p. 20) though there is no evidence that such alliance ever existed. And, we must ask ourselves, even if it did, what would be its relevance to Pirenne’s thesis? What is this hypothetical alliance doing in these pages at all other than provide a distraction and a muddying of the waters?
This impression of bad faith on the part of the author is reinforced again and again as we read on. Hard on the heels of the above statement Glick proceeds to hint at the mighty benefits Europe accrued by its association with Islam: “By the tenth century, when the Muslims had taken control of strategically important islands (Crete, Sicily, the Balearics) Islam effectively controlled the Mediterranean, which did not constitute a barrier to trade, but rather a medium whereby all bordering states could participate in a world economy, fertilized by healthy injections of Sudanese gold.” (pp.20-1)
Such a statement oozes mendacity. Even Glick must be aware of the fact that the only trade linking the Islamic world with southern Europe in the tenth century was the slave trade! Why is this information suppressed? Why is there no mention of the ravaging of the coastlands of northern Spain, France, Italy, and Greece by Muslim pirates; a ravaging so intense that large areas near the seashores became uninhabitable? Some Christian states in the region (most notably Venice and, to some degree, Byzantium), it is true, did become involved in this vicious traffic, but these were the exception. Glick neglects also to mention that most of the “Sudanese gold” arriving in Europe at this time ended up in Scandinavia; and that the whole Viking phenomenon, which devastated much of northern Europe for about two centuries, was intimately tied to the Muslim demand for white-skinned female slaves and eunuchs. (See for example Hugh Trevor-Roper’s comments on this in The Rise of Christian Europe)
Again, if so much gold were now arriving in Europe, why was this not translated into gold coinage? In answer to this, Glick treats us to a large paragraph in which he waffles on about “relative value” of gold and silver, and basically tells us that in Europe during the seventh to eleventh centuries silver was more valuable than gold; and hence they minted their money in silver. What he fails to tell his readers is that virtually all coinage — even bronze coinage — was extremely scarce during these centuries, proving beyond question that the continent was impoverished and reduced to a barter economy; just as Pirenne claimed.
The reality is, that, whilst the Muslims paid for their human captives in gold and silver, the amount they paid was tiny in comparison with the amount of gold reaching Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries, during which time the Gothic and Frankish kings minted large quantities of gold coins.
Further reading convinces that Glick is, in fact, pursuing an agenda, and that he has little interest in the facts. So, for example, he claims that though “there was no economic closure, the two halves of the Mediterranean world were no longer united by a common heritage, and in this sense — that of mutual perceptions — the conquest did erect a barrier which, although permeable to many kinds of cultural elements, perseveres to this day.” (p. 21)
What he appears to be saying here is that, although the Muslims didn’t actually attack and enslave Christian Europeans, Christian Europeans thought that they did!
Glick next proceeds to look at the diffusion of scientific and intellectual ideas.
“The Muslims inherited the Roman Empire, not only its territory but its peoples. The importance of this fact has been obscured by the vast cultural changes which formerly Roman territories underwent. By unifying the area again, the Muslims created a medium through which technologies and ideas could be easily diffused from one end of the Empire to the other.”
This is little more than the old canard that the Arabs enabled the free flow of ideas from the Far East to the West. Glick does admit that the Arabs plundered “Roman ruins for their materials without regard to the origin or aesthetic worth of the structure,” but nevertheless contrives to argue that they respected Roman civilization, or at the very least had an “ambivalent” attitude to it. To his credit, he does admit that most of the technical and scientific innovations of the period which Europeans have traditionally ascribed to the Arabs, actually came from the Far East — most particularly from China and India — and that Persia — pre-Islamic Sassanid Persia — was largely instrumental in diffusing these to the west.
“The movement of diffusion created by Islamic expansion in the high middle ages was, in general outline, from China and India in the East, radiating by land through central Asia, by sea to southern Arabia and the eastern Mediterranean, and then westward to North Africa and Europe. The East-to-West movement is constant; the Islamic world is its focal point; and, throughout, Persia appears to have been an extremely active hearth of cultural innovation in a wide variety of areas -- trade, technology, science, the revival of pharmaceutical interests, art, literary themes, music, agricultural technology and culinary tastes. The central place of Persia in this movement seems explicable in terms of the high level of economic development of the Sassanid Empire relative to the Arabs during the epoch of conquest. The Persian economic system (based on dynamic urban centers supported by intensive irrigation agriculture, which permitted the maintenance of a large population) provided the model utilized by the Arabs in the economic development of the conquered areas. Persia's economic domination in the East helps to explain the diffusion of specifically Persian techniques, artistic themes, and ideas to the West in early Islamic times.” (p. 23)
There follows a lengthy discussion of roads and systems of transport in the High Middle Ages (i.e. from the eleventh-twelfth centuries onwards), which can hardly be said to be relevant to Pirenne’s thesis.
Glick next examines the Visigothic state in Spain prior to the Islamic conquest. Here he endeavours to portray a divided and stratified society that was already in an advanced sate of decay before the arrival of the Muslims. He admits that the ruling Visigoths formed a relatively small proportion of the population — half a million Visigoths as against about eight million Hispano-Romans. This would imply that the economy should have continued more or less as it had been before the Visigothic conquest: and Spain was noted to be one of the Roman Empire’s most prosperous provinces. Yet Glick will have none of this. He argues that the country was an economic ruin when the Arabs arrived; and that this was primarily the result of natural disaster.
“The Hispano-Romans followed the general pattern of Mediterranean agriculture: cereal grains (wheat and barley), grapes, and vegetables grown in irrigated fields in the Ebro Valley and the Eastern littoral. What is clear is that the entire economy was in a state of profound disarray and agriculture was ruined as result of a series of natural disasters beginning in the seventh century. Perhaps we can accept at the root of this string of bad harvests, famine, and plague Ignacio Olagüe’s theory of a general climatic shift in the western Mediterranean world, beginning in the third century A.D., which had the result of making the climate drier and hotter and which reached crisis proportions in the high middle ages, forcing a greater dependence on irrigation agriculture in North Africa and Spain. Medieval chronicles noted famine and plague in the reign of Erwig (680-686), when half the population was said to have perished. Plagues of locusts were reported. There can be no doubt that the constant political turmoil of late-seventh- and early-eighth-century Spain take on more poignant meaning if set against a background of worsening harvests, prolonged drought, famine, and depopulation. Moreover, it makes more intelligible the shift in the balance of peninsular agriculture, away from dry-farming and herding, towards an increased reliance on irrigated crops, during the Islamic period. Islamic society in Spain was able to adjust to an arid ecology by directing the flow of economic resources into the technological adjustments required to increase irrigated acreage, whereas the Visigoths understood only a herding, forest ecology and could not adjust to any other.” (pp. 30-1)
Amidst all the verbiage here the only evidence proffered are the medieval chronicles which “noted famine and plague in the reign of Erwig.” But medieval chronicles noted famine and plague all the time, and their reliability is now regarded as suspect, to say the least. This is very poor grounds for such a sweeping statement about Spain’s economy during a period of one-and-a-half centuries.
His pronouncements on Spain’s urban economy at the time are hardly less ridiculous. He tells us that, “Visigothic trade was largely in the hands of Jews, who formed a numerous minority, and foreigners.” This, he claims, could have had repercussions: “When economic recession set in, Jews were blamed and a regressive cycle of restrictive anti-Jewish legislation could only have led to more disruptions of trade.” (p. 29) The reader will here note the phrase “could have.” And this, essentially, says it all. Glick is speculating and clutching at straws. He is trying to paint a picture of a decayed and degenerate civilization, already in the clutches of its own Dark Age, a Dark Age which the Muslim invaders had nothing to do with. “The barbarian invasions [of the Visigoths],” he claims, “were further responsible for the physical ruin of much of the urban plant built by the Romans,” and “Archaeological evidence demonstrates that when the Muslim invaders arrived in 711 many Hispano-Roman cities were already largely buried in subsoil.” This latter is an extremely bold statement. The reference Glick provides is a Spanish one (Leopoldo Torres Balbás, Ciudades hispano-musulmanas, Henri Terrasse, ed., 2 vols. (Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, n.d.), I: 27 n. 38, 32-34). I am unable to check this out, yet I find it remarkable that this statement flies so completely in the face of a plethora of other evidence which indicates that Visigothic Spain was a rich and opulent society. The great majority of the Visigothic architectural heritage has of course now disappeared, but enough has survived to convince us that this was a flourishing epoch. We may mention, for example, what is perhaps Spain’s oldest surviving church; the seventh century San Juan, from Baños de Cerrato in the province of Valencia. In Visigoth times, this was an important grain-producing region and legend has it that King Recceswinth commissioned the building of a church there when, on returning from a successful campaign against the Basques, he drank from the waters and recovered his health. The original inscription of the king, cut in the stones above the entrance, can still be discerned. Several bronze belt buckles and liturgical objects — as well as a necropolis with 58 tombs — have been discovered in the vicinity.
The impressive Gothic Cathedral at Valencia itself also has a crypt from the Visigoth era.
Again, the elegant Ermita de Santa María de Lara, at Quintanilla de Las Viñas, near Burgos, is a masterpiece of the Visigothic architectural style. Among its outstanding features is an unusual triple frieze of bas reliefs on its outer walls. Other surviving examples of Visigothic architecture are to be found in the La Rioja and Orense regions. The so-called horseshoe arch, which was to become so predominant in Moorish architecture, occurs first in these Visigothic structures, and was evidently an innovation of their architects. Toledo, the capital of Spain during the Visigothic period, still displays in its architecture the influence of the Visigoths.
None of this looks like the signature of a declining and barbarous culture. And the evidence of archaeology is confirmed by the testimony of the Arab conquerors themselves: On their arrival in Spain the Muslims were astonished at the size and opulence of its cities. Their annalists recall the appearance at the time of Seville, Cordova, Merida and Toledo; “the four capitals of Spain, founded,” they tell us naively, “by Okteban [Octavian] the Caesar.” Seville, above all, seems to have struck them by its wealth and its illustriousness in various ways. “It was,” writes Ibn Adhari,
“among all the capitals of Spain the greatest, the most important, the best built and the richest in ancient monuments. Before its conquest by the Goths it had been the residence of the Roman governor. The Gothic kings chose Toledo for their residence; but Seville remained the seat of the Roman adepts of sacred and profane science, and it was there that lived the nobility of the same origin.” (Cited from Louis Bertrand and Sir Charles Petrie, The History of Spain (2nd ed. London, 1945) p. 7)
Not much sign of decline here! Another Arab writer, Merida, mentions Seville’s great bridge as well as “magnificent palaces and churches,” (Bertrand and Petrie, pp.17-18)
All of this makes us wonder about the statement that the Roman cities of Spain were destroyed by the Visigoths. Importantly, Glick fails to mention the almost complete non-appearance of Islamic remains in Spain during the first two centuries of the country’s Islamic epoch. This is a topic that has been covered in some detail by Heribert Illig in his Wer hat an der Uhr Gedreht? (1999). If we can find virtually nothing from the years 711 to circa 950, how do we know that the Roman cities covered by a layer of subsoil were destroyed by the Visigoths? Is it not more likely — indeed, much more likely — that these cities were destroyed by the Islamic Conquest — a conquest of the Iberian Peninsula that was infinitely more violent and prolonged than the Visigoth conquest two centuries earlier.
And so it goes on. One dark inference and assertion based on unsubstantiated sources after another. Take for example his comments on mining and metallurgy under the Visigoths:
“The economic regressiveness of Visigothic Spain is well illustrated by the failure of the Goths to carry on the vast mining enterprise begun by the Romans, who removed from Iberian pits a wide variety of metals, including silver, gold, iron, lead, copper, tin, and cinnabar, from which mercury is made. The relative insignificance of mining in Visigothic Spain is attested to by the winnowing of the full account given by Pliny to the meager details supplied by Isidore of Seville, who omits any mention, for example, of iron deposits in Cantabria. The most important Roman mines have lost their Latin names, generally yielding to Arabic ones -- as in Almadén and Aljustrel -- probably an indication of their quiescence during the Visigothic period and their revival by the Muslims. The Goths may have allowed their nomadic foraging instinct to direct their utilization of metal resources. In some areas mined by the Romans they probably scavenged for residual products of abandoned shafts that remained unworked, and metal for new coinage seems largely to have been provided by booty captured from enemies or from older coins fleeced from taxpayers.”
Read that again carefully: The only evidence he has that mining declined under the Visigoths is the “meagre details supplied by Isidore of Seville” and the fact that the most important Roman-age mines in Spain are now known by Arabic names. This hardly constitutes convincing evidence upon which to make such a sweeping statement; and it stands in stark contrast to the vast wealth, in gold, silver and precious stones, that the Arabs themselves claimed to have carried off from Spain. (See Louis Bertrand, op cit.)
Glick’s portrayal of the Visigoths as nomadic pastoralists verges on the comic, given the fact that they had left their nomad existence behind two centuries earlier and had adapted so completely to the Roman style of life (remember they never constituted more than a tiny minority of the Spanish population) that they left not a single Germanic word in the Spanish language. Glick goes on:
“Thus the failure of the Visigothic state, seen in its unbalanced economy, as well as in its disjointed and incohesive social organization, was also reflected in its technological atony, which was at the core of the elite’s inability to adapt to any ecology other than that with which it was originally familiar: the men of the woods never strayed too far from there. They were unable to build on the Roman base. In 483 the duke Salla repaired the Roman bridge at Mérida; yet in 711 the Arabs found the bridge at Córdoba in ruins …” (p. 31)
On this last point, it seems never to have occurred to Glick that the Visigoths themselves destroyed the bridge to prevent the further advance of the Arab armies. This is a basic rule of warfare.
I need continue no further. Glick fills another twenty pages with the same type of half-truths and whole fabrications. Visigothic Spain, as well as contemporary Italy and Gaul, were, in spite of what Glick tries to prove, cultured and prosperous societies. The evidence shows that the revelations of modern scholarship, particularly archaeology, have given further support to Pirenne, and the latter’s thesis is now proved beyond reasonable doubt.
John O’Neill’s book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.